Gašper Bivšek

- Slovenia -

Gašper Bivšek (1984) lives, writes and works in Mežica, a former mining town in Slovenian Carinthia. His poetry has been published by numerous Slovenian literary magazines. His debut Skorjevec (Crustose) and follow-up Province. Dusk were published by Ljubljana-based Študentska založba. Bivšek likes concrete things. He doesn’t sleep much. Earth gives him life and earth is the foundation of his poetry. 

Gašper Bivšek entered the Slovenian literary scene with poetry published in magazines, then became one of the most talked-about names of the younger generation of poets, i.e. those born in the eighties, when Študentska založba published his first poetry book Crustose in 2007. (Strictly speaking, Bivšek’s debut is Vrtnica na dlani (A Palm with a Rose), a book published in 2003 by his high school in Ravne na Koroškem; however, Bivšek today regards it critically, calling it a poetry of adolescent affections.)


The title of Bivšek’s book, Crustose (the dictionary informs us this is a type of lichen growing tightly pressed to its substrate) already hints that we won’t be reading anything like the so-called “urban poetry” but rather something completely different. As the author said in an interview, crustose, to him, is more than a kind of lichen: “It’s a symbol of nature’s highest triumph, but also of its vulnerability. The same goes for man as well.”


Crustose consists of cycles that interconnect into a whole. The first and last share an evocative title, “Ta krvave” (“The Bloody Ones”), suggesting the poems they comprise are focused on the perception of a rather unpoetic everyday life. Bivšek’s poems present an unembellished world of all things primal and rural. “Galwes” – it’s this platform, see, / A three-sided pyramid / That grabs you by your hind legs / And you hang with your head to the ground. / That was the throne / Under the jutting roof / Upon which we crucified your juicy flesh. However, in spite of its explicit imagery and fountains of blood, Bivšek’s poetry does not intend to provoke. It merely describes the “way of things” without judging them or getting sentimental. As described in a review of the book by Irena Svetek: “Bivšek’s poetry is not a record of the cruelties of rural life (or life in general) as existential horrors; rather, it is an unburdened dialogue with nature in all its forms.” The world of manifest and seemingly cruel laws of nature is more authentic than the estrangement of urban life, state the poems that make up the cycle “Bivanje Črnega Potnika” (“Life of the Black Passenger”), which represents the core of Crustose. The Black Passenger, hypnotized by neon signs, observes: This is not the right door, not the right address, / This is no humanitarian organization, / No Promised Land. Look at yourself / In the mirror and wash the cataracts from your eyes. Bivšek’s formal debut is not merely promising – it is a mature and original act of poetry, an attempted dialogue with nature, marked by particular, multi-layered, philosophical and guileless metaphor.


Bivšek’s second book of poetry, Province. Dusk was published by Študentska založba in 2012. In the book, Bivšek builds on his distinct poetics by writing out man’s capacities for life with the earth. In the poems, nature takes on an almost human face: All the places you invade / With your chlorophyll fingers of lust. / This needs to be punished. / We will prune you and trim you, / Experts consider you too green. / We will strap new arms / Onto your chopped-off elbows. Running parallel to the humanisation of nature is the naturalisation of man, his synchronisation with nature: You overgrow yourself in the maze / Of undergrowth. In the afterword, Neža Zajc notes the following of the book: “If his first book Crustose was a realization of a once heard but now absent harmony of words and things, i.e. of names and reality, Bivšek’s second book of poetry achieves a provocative abrogation of self-consciousness.” The final poem of the cycle “Posvečene pesmi” (“Hallowed Poems”) goes: How naïve is one who realises his own / Naivety? To watch the tree, to do nothing but watch / It expand and contract, watch it flame, as it / Changes its clothes.


However, Bivšek’s poetry is unique not only at the level of its thoughts but also at the linguistic level. “We’re dealing with an interesting, complex literary phenomenon, as the book exhibits a linguistic approach that’s significantly different from all those that we’re used to in the poetry of both Bivšek’s contemporaries as well as his direct predecessors, perhaps even literary teachers,” writes critic Jelka Kernev Štrajn. The similarities and differences between Bivšek’s poetry and that of his predecessors is also addressed by Gašper Jakovac in his review of Province. Dusk: “Grave, surreal and pseudo-pagan tones are combined into a dark mixture of man’s interaction with nature that arouses feelings similar to those sensed in the poetry of Dane Zajc, but is generally constructed in a different manner, it’s elliptic, the rhythm is slow, there’s fine detail and few repetitions.”


The poetry of Gašper Bivšek is inspired by landscape and the nature he’s joined to. Uncharacteristically for a young poet, he lives a somewhat isolated life in Slovenian Carinthia. He’s a logger by trade. As he explains in an interview, his greatest inspiration is nature: “I couldn’t write anywhere else than in Mežica. The town is the heart of my poetry, the starting point from which I emanate. Those are my roots, that’s where I grow from, like a tree.” The environment that’s so central to Bivšek’s poetry doesn’t end at the level of literary motifs. It wholly permeates every level of it: “The rhythm is found in the feet and the body, not in the head. I think my rhythm is the rhythm of the land. If you look at Carinthia as a landscape, everything is going upwards and downwards – there are valleys, peaks, hills, mountains, springs.”


In the words of Neža Zajc, Bivšek’s attachment to the land is mirrored by that which makes poetry possible, i.e. language itself: “Originality, which exists in the relationship with all previous poetry, remains a fundamental premise of the poet’s situation and can only be respectfully represented within language. That is the reason why Bivšek’s mastery […] of language – Slovene language – is so important. As a complete outsider, he has shown his Slovenian contemporaries what few are able to admit: poetry cannot be learned – one is either born a poet or not.”